Research Paper Critical Analysis of John Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi

The play The Duchess of Malfi which was written by John Webster, a well-known English dramatist of the 17-th century, is considered to be a tragic play. Some critics call this literary work a masterpiece while others express their negative attitude to this play.

My goal in this paper in to give critical analysis of the play and to prove the fact that violence, revenge and misuse of power can destroy the lives of many people.

The main character of the play is the Duchess, a young woman who became a widow being rather young. She lives in Amalfi, a small Italian city. The story takes place in the 16-th century. The young woman falls in love with Antonio, a handsome young man who is her steward and wants to marry him. However, the Duchess’s brothers the Cardinal and the Duke Ferdinand are against her marriage. They are very powerful and cruel men who do not want their sister to be happy. However, the Duchess secretly marries Antonio. The author of the play tries to show human relations in the society where money and prejudice govern the life of people. The Duchess marries a man who is of lower status. She does not want to think about wealth. She wants to be happy and to love a good man. The Duchess’s brother knows his sister’s character and feels that she will go against his will. He hires another person, Bosola as a spy in order to learn more about the life and intentions of his sister. The second brother the Cardinal favours this idea. The author of the play shows mean and cruel people whose blood relations are ruined. They are the hunters. They think only about their sister’s money. This theme is developed by John Webster in order to capture the attention of those people around him who have the same vices, who are lost in iniquity and who have dirty intentions. (Allison 34)

It is known that Algernon Swinburne, one of the critics of Webster’s play wrote: “There is no poet nobler than Webster”. It really is true. In his play The Duchess of Malfi, he not only criticized his society, he proved the fact that cruelty, violence and misuse of power could ruin everything around. John Webster puts the ethical themes on the first place in his play. The readers can judge the main characters according to their behavior and their actions. The Cardinal, the Duchess brother is represented as a corrupt man, who has a powerful position at the Roman Catholic Church. Although he is a representative of the religious organization, he lives immoral life. He does not trust his sister because he hires a spy to learn her intentions. Moreover, he has a mistress. It means that he does not follow the rules of the Church. (Allison 12)

The author of the play represents one more character who plays an important role in the story ”“ Bosola. His character is considered to be the most complex one. His personality is changing in the course of the play. He is a greedy man, a servant who will do everything for his master. Bosola describes his character in the following way: “the opinion of wisdom is a foul tetter that runs all over the man’s body. If simplicity directs us to have no evil, it directs us to a happy being, for the subtlest folly proceeds from the subtlest wisdom”. (Webster 34)

Bosola is a man who can experience guilt. He knew that the brothers of the Duchess were against her marriage and he knew that they could kill her but he did not change the situation. Bosola realized that the fact that he was a true servant of the Duke Ferdinand caused damage to other people. Bosola wanted to be promoted that is why he served the tyranny of his master. However, he understood that everything he did was his mistake. He even said that nothing could change his feeling of conscience, not even all the wealth of the world.(Green) Bosola is a person who can criticize the society he lives in. This fact proves that not all the people in the society are cruel, greedy, powerful and revengeful. John Webster gives a chance to all the people of his society to change their personalities, to become kinder and more sensitive to the feeling of others. (Green)

It is known that the play is divided into five acts which are closely connected with each other. The readers can see the development of conflict between the Duchess and her brothers in such a way that the story ends tragically. One by one the characters of the play meet their death. A lot of critics studies this literary work and gave their ideas concerning John Webster’s style of writing. For example, Charles Forker, noted that Webster created good “psychological portraits”. Bradbrook considered that Webster’s play was written in the so called “dramatic form of masque”.(Green)
The Duchess of Malfi is a literary work which highlights the major issues of the society of the sixteenth century. The author showed gender hierarchical system where women take the lower position. Male dominance can lead to serious problems, and even to death. The Duchess is a brave woman who disobeyed the wishes of her brothers, who did not follow the established rules of her society. She ignored social norms and chose her servant Antonio to be her husband. She has a lot of male traits of character because she is not weak, she asserts herself. The Duchess is decisive while Antonio is passive. Antonio cannot make his own independent decisions. The Duchess is always brave and active. Antonio calls her “a soft white dove, drawing the carriage of Venus” and he cannot resist her charms. John Webster wanted to show a woman who is ready to fight for her happiness, who is not afraid of her brothers and other people of the society. (Webster 41)

In conclusion of this research paper, it is necessary to say that John Webster’s play The Duchess of Malfi touches upon a lot of serious issues of the human society. It represents a woman as a powerless creature who takes the lower position in the gender hierarchical system. John Webster could prove the fact that human violence and meanness, revenge and misuse of power in the society can lead to the serious implications.

1 Comment

  • Jayi Sarkar

    This article is so nice. Everything in this article are described so beautifully. It helps me so much to know the critical analytical sides of the play ” The duchess of malfi “. I like this so much .

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